This is my account of getting mugged on the mean streets of Rio. Before anything else, however, I should mention that Laura and I are both fine. Also, if you’re one of our parents, grandparents, or just a person who worries a lot, the title of this post has probably already given you more information than I’d ideally like you to have. So, I’d recommend you stop reading now. I doubt you will, but that’s what I’d suggest. Also, for everyone who reads this, keep in mind that the events I’ll describe cover a very brief period of time. We have done and will do many things on this trip, but I have a feeling that the first thing that someone is going to say to us when we ger back is, “I heard you got mugged!” And that’s fine, but my point here is that if you do mention this blog or our trip to anyone, please feel free to mention some of the good things as well, because there are a lot of them. So, those are the disclaimers and caveats, for any who need them.

Not long after we arrived in Rio, we heard that on Saturday, June 5, there was going to be a street market in the neighborhood called Lapa. Lapa is the hip, nightlife area of town and we had been wanting to check it out for a while, so a morning market seemed like a pleasant and easy way to get oriented in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t wake up on Saturday until around 11 am because I had been up so late at the jazz night on Friday. As a result, we figured we had probably missed the market, but we decided to head out anyway.

The walk from Catete (near The Maze, where we’re staying) to Lapa was a long one, but took us through some of Rio’s historic, colonial neighborhoods. They’re quite impressive. When we got to Lapa, however, I could see why Lonely Planet described it as “rough and tumble.” Though it didn’t seem dangerous in the early afternoon, it was definitely grungier than other parts of town.

As we expected, the market in Lapa was over (or we just couldn’t find it) by the time we arrived, so we decided to visit the nearby neighboorhood of Santa Teresa. To get to Santa Teresa we would have to take a picturesque cable car (a la “Street Car Named Desire”), and once there we’d be able to explore a relatively well-preserved colonial area. Many buildings in Rio have old tile roofs, plaster and wood-beam walls, and cobble stone paths, but in Santa Teresa things things are supposedly better preserved and less mixed with more modern architecture.

Unfortunately, there was a long line of tourists waiting to take the cable car. We decided not to wait. Instead, we decided to head to the nearby Central, Rio’s commercial downtown and financial center, where most of the city’s best art and history museums are located.

Arriving in Central was actually quite impressive. First, we saw the city’s opera house, which is an opulent building based on the older, more famous version in Paris. Next,
we walked out onto Rio Branco, the city’s grand avenue that was designed to be a kind of Champs Elys√©es of the tropics. The street is lined with tall trees and a mix of architectural styles from several centuries.

After looking around for while we decided to visit the national art museum, which is located on Rio Branco (R$5 per person to enter). By the time we got out of that museum it was about 4 pm, so we decided to try to find another, smaller museum we’d heard about that closed at 5 pm.

We walked around for a few minutes, but we quickly began to notice a few things that worried us. First, the streets were becoming increasingly deserted. While the area houses the headquarters of many wealthy corporations, it’s significantly less used on weekends when all those offices are closed. With the many museums and tourist attractions preparing to close their doors, we found ourselves more and more isolated.

The situation also looked foreboding because the sun was beginning to set. Because it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere, it gets dark here by about 5:30 pm. This has routinely been a challenge for us coming from Utah, where it gets dark sometime after 9 pm in June; typically we try to be at the hotel or in familiar parts of the city by nightfall, but the short days really limit what we can do.

Anyway, it was getting dark and the people we disappearing, so we decided to give up our plan to visit one more museum. We thought it would be best to get to somewhere we knew was safe.

As we made our way back a couple of blocks to Rio Branco it suddenly started to feel late. Really late. There were hardly any people around, and most of those that were on the street were either homeless or drunk (or both). The combination of the short day and vacant streets had somehow ominously transformed the streets in just a few minutes. I didn’t think anything bad was going to happen, but we inevitably stand out as tourists and it seemed unwise (not to mention discourtious) to galavant through the turf of people so obviously less fortunate than us.

Sensing the need to be around a somewhat less rough crowd, we decided to head through a street fair we saw about a block away. The fair was on a tributary street that led directly to Rio Branco, and was filled with families and kids. As we made our way past the street fair I also noticed a bus stop with a bunch of people waiting, and a McDonald’s. (My experience with McDonald’s in Brazil is that it’s kind of pricey, compared to the cheaper local restaurants, and therefore an upper middle class kind of place to eat. I’ve also never seen one in a “dangerous” area.)

The result of all these surroundings was that I was feeling pretty good about where we were. We had almost reached Rio Branco, and there were nice looking people all around.

As we started walking toward Rio Branco, however, I did notice that there were some more homeless people lying around. They were about 50 yards from the McDonald’s, and were mostly ignoring the more lively activities down the street. I knew we’d have to walk by them to make our way to our neighboorhood, but that seemed better than going back where we’d have to walk through whole neighborhoods that seemed dangerous.

As we walked toward Rio Branco, I also noticed that some parts of the street were much darker than others. Though the sun was still up, it was low in the sky which, combine with the skyscrappers, meant that some sections were much harder to see in than others. I also noticed that we were going to have to pass a closed newsstand. Like many around Rio, it was a metal, permanent shed-type structure that was painted blue. Because of its position and color on the sidewalk, the area around it was especially dark.

As we passed the newsstand two guys in their late teens or early twenties jumped up and started walking behind us. Obviously, I knew that was a really bad sign, but I hoped they were just going to pester us for money and then go away, as happens all the time.

Before I could even finish thinking that, however, they grabbed my messanger bag and started shaking it. I turned, and they grabbed me by the arms and slammed me into the newsstand. Their petulant pleas for money turned into screamed threats.

Pinned down and, frankly, terrified, I managed to reach into my pocket. I felt some money in there and pulled it out. It was a R$20 note. They grabbed it. They also kept screaming to give them more.

I tried to tell them to hold on and that I’d give them more, but they must not have understood my fear-muddled Portuguese (or not cared), because they didn’t let up.

Then, one of them punched me in the ribs. A few things went through my head at this point. First, that these guys weren’t great at punching. The hit was no harder than a joke punch my dad might have given me at a family dinner. Still the two of them were holding me against the wall and the punch was intimidating. The second thing that went through my mind was that this wasn’t just going to be a mugging, it was going to be a beating.

As all of this was going on I’m not sure where Laura was. They had basically ignored her, and because they were right up in my face I couldn’t really see her. I know that at one point they ripped my hat off, and she picked it up. When one of the guys was basically climbing on me, I also think she sort of pulled him off. She was quite the hero.

After what seemed like several minutes if this, but was probably only seconds, I started to hear some other yelling. The theives heard it to and loosened their grip. I turned my head and saw that the crowd of people from the McDonald’s had heard all the commotion and was coming in our direction. Finally, I remembered the portuguese word for “help,” and started yelling it.

With the McDonald’s crowd bearing down and my calls for help, the theives let go of me. For a second or two the four of us just stood their. Then I turned to Laura, looked at the crowd (about 25 yards away at this point) and we walked away. I wanted to thank the crowd, but the theives were between us and them, so we left without saying anything. I imagine they knew better than we did what they prevented, but I hope that making eye contact with the man who led the charge (an aethletic, bald-by-choice guy) was enough to show my gratitude.

I’m not sure how this story reads, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared in my life (or for my life). Neither my body nor my brain functioned how I had wanted or expected them to (which would have been like Jason Bourne), and we were obviously very lucky, for a few reasons. First, the theives weren’t very good at what they were doing. They immediately resorted to intimidation and violence, which were the very things that attracted the crowd. In other words, the attack was all style and no strategy. That could have been very bad for us because once something begins like that the attackers seem unlikely to back off unless they perceive a new threat greater than the one retreat poses to their masculinity (i.e. if their objective was to get more and more they had to keep increasing the violence or be perceived as weak and out of control). As it was though, this approach was what doomed them.

They also weren’t very good at actually stealing stuff. They got about $12 at the current exchange rate (which doesn’t buy much even in Brazil). However, I had an iPod, a digital camera, more cash, a credit card, and other stuff in my bag. If they had just reached in (the bag doesn’t have a zipper holding it shut) they could have gotten all of it, or if they hadn’t been holding me in place I would have just given it to them.

Regardless, this is experience was pretty traumatic and we’ve been much more cautious ever since (at times boarding on paranoia). I have a lot more to say about this experience and the how its aftermath has affected us, but for now I hope it doesn’t turn people off to visiting Brazil or Rio. Most visitors to the city will never make it to the area we were in, and the whole thing was largely a result of us not being vigilant enough. Also, I think it’s important to keep in mind that while two Brazilians attacked us, many more rushed to our rescue.


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.

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